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Wanted: Alive (We Hope)

Politically Speaking

He's the only Republican that we know for sure has a heart--mostly because every now and then it stops working. Say what you will about the Bush administration, but give V.P. Dick Cheney credit for one of the most amazing political feats ever pulled off: finding a proper and useful role for the vice president.

To see what I mean, just look at some vice presidential quotes from the past. Most are real zingers. For example, Thomas Marshall said, "The vice president is like a man in a cataleptic state. He cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; and yet he is perfectly conscious of everything going on about him." LBJ apparently agreed. "It's like being naked in the middle of a blizzard with no one to even offer you a match to keep you warm--that's the vice presidency," he said. Though many accounts confirm that LBJ frequently walked around the White House naked, I don't think that's what he had in mind here. Even John Adams, famed for being related to beer maker Sam Adams Dark Lager, wrote, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man or his imagination conceived." And that's the guy who wrote the Constitution!

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Anyone still not convinced, just think of Dan Quayle, who, evidently trying to create a palindrome, offered, "The job is just awkward, an awkward job." But perhaps the vice presidency has been best characterized by former V.P. John Garner who famously uttered, "The vice presidency is not worth a pitcher of warm spit."

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Until now. Though many past vice presidents bemoaned their lack of power and responsibility, Cheney does not suffer from such problems. In fact, some say he is even too powerful, the power behind the throne. There is no doubt about it. Though angioplasties are becoming as important on his daily schedule as, say, lunch, Cheney is poised to become the most powerful, influential and involved vice president in history. How did this happen? First, he's got the trust of his boss by virtue of being a close family friend. The Bushes know the Cheneys very well, and this relationship clearly makes their working relationship smooth. Clinton and Gore also managed such a relationship for awhile (think "Boys on the Bus"), but it broke down in later years due to, well, you know.

Second, Cheney is seen as an extension of Bush because, not having any personal ambition, his actions are seen as pure and unbiased. This is an important shift from the traditional view of the vice presidency as a stepping stone--although Teddy Roosevelt wrote, "It is not a stepping stone to anything except oblivion." This distinction allows Cheney to influence without being distrusted. His status as an extension of the president, combined with his skill and experience, allows Cheney to deal with Congress and the public successfully.

Finally, a large part of Cheney's success lies in his ability to do the dirty work and play bad cop in the administration. This is enormously vital to the Bush team's lofty and ambitious plans and goals. More than anybody else, Cheney coordinates the Bush administration, managing the personnel and making sure domestic policy, foreign policy and political plans come together. He is the prime minister to Bush's president. It is Cheney who goes to Capitol Hill to rally the troops, and, perhaps more importantly, keeps the troops in line. For example, on a recent visit to the White House to discuss campaign finance reform, "Hanoi" Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seemed to sell Bush on the idea (which increasingly reminds me of the Living Wage campaign with McCain playing the PSLM), but was stymied by Cheney, quietly sitting at the side of the room.

The results of Cheney's vice-presidential style have been impressive. The Bush administration has carried out an unexpectedly-successful first two months, characterized by efficiency and effectiveness, and much of this can be attributed to the man in the backseat, "Back Seat," doubling as Cheney's fitting Secret Service code name during the Ford Administration.

The vice presidency has come a long way, quickly. Just 30 years ago, Spiro Agnew said, "A little over a week ago, I took a rather unusual step for a vice president. I said something." Today, we can be more comfortable because Cheney is speaking.

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